Location of Alaska on USA maps

By Andrew Skinner, Esri Design Cartographer

Alaska thumb

At the recent Northwest GIS User Conference, Dorothy Mortenson commented on the location of Alaska on U.S. maps. Dorothy works for the Oregon Water Resources Department and is often tasked with mapping the Pacific Northwest, including Alaska. She made some very good points about why we should try to change the standard practice of placing the state of Alaska in the lower left corner of the page. We agreed with her when she made a case for changing the map layouts and we wanted to share our thoughts with you.  But first, here are a few of the points Dorothy made:

  1. Alaska’s been a state for over 50 years. It’s time to acknowledge it as a U.S. state on maps of the U.S.A.
  2. With the mapping and publishing capabilities now available to us, there’s plenty of room for all of the U.S. states.
  3. “No data” is just as important as some data. We wouldn’t feel compelled to eliminate an interior state, like Illinois, from the contiguous U.S. if there weren’t any data for that state.
  4. If you don’t want to map Alaska, Hawaii and the territories, then call the map what it is – the conterminous or contiguous 48 states.

Dorothy is right to point out one of the injustices of cartographic standard practice, and it is timely to question it. The logic behind the traditional depiction of the USA with Alaska and Hawaii rescaled and tucked into (usually) the bottom left corner, at least in the commercial world, has been economic, market-driven, historical, and in some part the result of inertia.

Alaska Traditional

A traditional USA map layout, with Alaska and Hawaii rescaled and tucked into the bottom left corner.


A revised layout, with all maps at the same scale. The major Hawaiian islands are placed at the bottom left to imply the correct geographical relationship with the other states, but this inset map could be moved to the top left if preferred.


A revised layout with all maps at the same scale, showing the full Hawaiian Island chain. At this scale, the smaller islands are almost invisible, and some degree of exaggeration would need to be considered. On a larger layout they could remain untouched. Alternatively or additionally, a coastal vignette could be used to emphasize the location of the smaller islands.

It was economic because in the print world, a commercial cartographer is always looking to work within the constraints of the manufacturing process. If a space could be filled with map detail, and as a consequence take up a smaller area, there were savings, and therefore extra profit, to be made. The fact (or perceived fact) is that there were never enough customers with an interest in what happened with Alaska and Hawaii to justify the extra cost of manufacturing a more generous layout.

It was market-driven, because our customers had certain expectations. With a wall map, it was always going to be easier to increase the width of the product rather than the height (it will fit better on the average wall). In a book, where maximizing the scale of the “lower 48″ may be considered important by the customer, this was best done in a landscape format, whether it was across two pages (a spread) or turned on the page. On occasion it was and is taken too far. Building a thematic map on two scales, particularly where area is a factor in the data, is a dangerous thing without some very careful explanation.

It was historical, because these constraints informed the development of many such products in the conventional cartography days, when making a layout change could be a long and difficult process. Many later products were derived from these original map elements, so the basic format did not change much. An additional factor on occasion was a lack of map detail (usually Mexico) behind the Alaska and Hawaii insets – bad cartography, but the sort of decision that is made when cost and deadline are important

Inertia I think, at least in this context, is a more recent thing. Despite the fact that layout change is not the issue it once was, traditional layouts have been maintained simply because it is easier not to rebuild a product that works or, more importantly, sells. As maps move more into electronic media the economic constraints are different, as is the user experience. Shape is less of an issue with a web page where on first viewing the available space is generally square, or on a smart phone where scrolling is part of the experience, and the benefits of interactivity are rewriting most rulebooks anyway. Still, in many cases you will see the same old format, with Alaska tucked into the corner and Hawaii alongside.

So the time may be right for the status quo to be challenged. If a map is showing the whole of the United States, should it not include a same-scale depiction of the whole country? I would add one stipulation (which should have been made all along)… that unless the States are shown in their proper geographical relationship, which is unlikely, there should always be some form of location map included that does. If the map does not include Alaska and Hawaii (and there may be justifiable reasons for this), should it not be called “Contiguous United States” rather than a misleading “United States”.

If we subscribe to the view that Alaska should be shown at scale, in its entirety with all of the Aleutian Islands depicted, should we not do the same for the Hawaiian Island chain, out to the Midway Islands? This means that, like Alaska, Hawaii can no longer be tucked into a corner of the traditional map layout.

The Geography of Alaska is so different! The landscape is more extreme, and human impact is less intrusive. It was always easier to treat Alaska as “special” when its depiction was at a significantly different scale (if the final product was a road or a topographic map). With a same-scale depiction, it’s not so easy to justify. Trying to find a balance of data and a level of generalization that works well with the rest of the United States but keeps Alaska detailed enough is a challenge… but that, I hope, is why we have map designers.

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  1. clm42 says:

    I love the second layout with Alaska at the top though Hawaii now seems kind of sadly delegated down into the corner. I think that the Midways can be safely truncated if Florida Keys are. The Aleutians are pretty large bodies so I can understand their presense however. I think land masses of a certain size should be included and those below the threshold shouldnt. The size needs to be decided at the start of the project and maintained. If you want to show tiny islands than you will just have to deal with the Midways, Aleutians, and Keys.

  2. mapg33k says:

    While I agree with the concept, I don’t particularly care for the alternative layouts proposed above. If you are going to include Alaska on a map with the lower 48 states, you might as well show it in the context of the whole continent and then tuck Hawaii in as an inset, if you need too. Allan Cartography’s map of North America is a great example of this.

  3. jaydonnelly says:

    The National Atlas of the United States has been using this second layout for selected Wall Maps since 2000. John Hutchinson is the cartographer responsible for the design.

    Sometimes a continental perspective is more appropriate and there are some types of maps (choropleths, for example) in which layout two may provide a little too much emphasis on Alaska.

    http://nationalatlas.gov/wallmaps.html#genref02 (click on the thumbnails)

  4. ajskinner2 says:

    I would agree that a full coverage of North America makes for a better looking map (and one that may be easier to understand geographically), but I wonder if part of that is because we are not used to seeing the sheer size of Alaska in relation to the rest of the country. Regardless, the reality of the situation is still one of available space. If a USA map’s information density is at something close to capacity, and a scale increase of a few percent will improve legibility, then it’s worth considering a compromised layout.

    In the end it’s all down to making the best (and least misleading) use of the space available, aesthetically as well as functionally. I’m not expecting the ‘traditional’ layout to go away completely (I could even use it again myself if I thought the circumstances required it). However, I would hope to see it used intelligently – where it does not compromise the map information, and where appropriate explanation is included.

  5. geraldda says:

    You have to be extremely careful about your map projection if you are going to do this! If you use the North America Lambert Conformal system for all three maps, Alaska will probably be about 5 percent too large, or something like that. If you use the Web Mercator, Alaska might be over 50 percent too large. If you use the North Americal Albers Equal Area, the sizes will be OK but Alaska will be stunted in the north-south direction and stretched east-west.

    ESRI has separate Albers coordinate systems for the continental US, Alaska, and Hawaii under Continental–North America. Use the appropriate coordinate system for each data frame.

    This is great if you can use any shape you want for your layout, but I don’t like it if it forces you to go to a portrait layout on an 8.5×11 inch page instead of landscape. The scale of the 48 coterminous states is cut in half and a large amount of real estate ends up getting devoted to wilderness and ocean.

  6. abuckley says:

    It is true that you have to be careful about the projection — one way to overcome the problems that “geraldda” mentioned in the comment above is to modify the parameters of the projected coordinate system. For example, you can change the standard parallels and the central meridian for the map of Alaska in its own data frame. And you can do the same again for the map of Hawaii in its data frame. This way, you use the same projection but you change only where it is centered and where the standard parallels are (this minimizing the projection distortion). At this map scale, that is also an acceptable solution.

  7. stuskier says:

    So, what would be an appropriate coordinate system(s) to use when superimposing Alaska over the lower 48 states – as is often done to convey the idea of Alaska’s size?

  8. matt_stutts says:

    All good points…

    So how about a template then, ESRI?… or some other kind user?

  9. abuckley says:

    Since the map for AK is in a different data frame than the main map, and for that matter, so is HI, you can use a projection that is appropriate for each map. On the Coordinate System tab of the data frame properties dialog, you can set the projection for each of the data frames: the main map with the lower 48, the AK map, and potentially even the HI map.

    If you want to show how the two areas relate in size, as you suggest, then the Albers Equal Area projection is the one to use.

    You would place the two data frames over one another, set the map scale to be equivalent, and set the projections to be the same with one or maybe two modifications — you need to change the central meridian of each data frame to be in the approximate center of the mapped area (e.g., -96 for the lower 48, -154 for AK depending on how far out in the islands you go, and – 155.5 for HI.) To do this, on the Coordinate System tab of the data frame properties dialog, click the Modify button and change the central meridian.

    Another thing you could change is the standard parallels. To figure out the values to use, measure the N-S extent of each main area on the map, calculate the range in degrees, divide it by 6 to get an interval and then subtract that interval value from the northernmost extent and add it to the southernmost one. These two values are the new standard parallel values. Modifying both the central meridian and the standard parallels assures that you have the least amount of projection distortion in the mapped area of each data frame.

  10. abuckley says:

    This map will soon be in a template that you can download from Mapping Center’s Maps page! Look for it there!